Monday, October 31, 2011

Are the Islamists ready to govern?

The Arab Spring is not only an opportunity for Islamists but also a test case. How the Ennahda movement of Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt respond to the challenges will determine the future of both the Arab Spring and the Islamists.
Islamist political movements in Tunisia and Egypt are poised to come to power through the electoral process. This is a new challenge for democracy expected to emerge from the Arab Spring. The question is whether Islamists, once in power, will remain committed to and respectful of democratic institutions and processes. As such, it is also a challenge for Islamists as well, who used to be excluded and oppressed by the prevailing authoritarian regimes in the region.

It is a challenge for Islamists to adapt themselves to the new circumstances. Their ability to change is being tested. Political Islamism is designed as an opposition movement. In an authoritarian political environment where all dissenting voices were suppressed, an opposition in the name of Islam was the only remaining ground to challenge the oppressive governments. This is what happened in almost all Muslim countries in the Middle East. Opposition in the name of Islam appeared as the only legitimate form of opposition, with discursive superiority over authoritarian ruling regimes, and it also promised strong popular support, given the influence of religion in the formation of Muslims identities.

Thus from the 1970s onwards, political Islam emerged as a platform for opposition, a kind of protest movement challenging the established order. It called for change in the midst of the stagnant political orders of Arab authoritarianism. Following the failures of Arab nationalism and other secular ideologies, the simple slogan of “Islam is the solution” made sense to the Arab masses and attracted them. It was expected to resolve all the problems of the Muslims, from unemployment to healthcare, from education to housing. Islamism was the blueprint. What the secular-nationalist Arab regimes failed to produce was to be provided by the Islamists.

Islamist opposition movements, however, never developed a comprehensive program on how to resolve all the problems the people encountered. It did not really matter because the authoritarian Arab regimes never allowed them to perform in government. And it was unlikely for the Islamists to one day be in a position to make good on their promises. The Islamists in the region remained for a very long period in opposition, a position in which they could freely criticize the regimes without having to offer anything as an alternative. This was really comfortable. They did not have to offer something concrete in terms of programs and projects as a solution to the problems of the people. They remained in the opposition, comfortably criticizing the government in a way that also increased radicalism and the sweeping political stance of the Islamists.

It was not therefore only the oppression the Islamists experienced that radicalized them, but also the absence of governmental responsibility.

With the Arab Spring the Islamists now face, at least in Tunisia and Egypt, a new situation.

First, they have been freed from governmental oppression. Now they are in a position to express themselves and appeal to the masses with a positive agenda, not just a series of criticisms directed against the ruling regimes, as in the old days. So they have to develop reasonable programs and come up with sensible projects to address the problems of the people. The old days in which mere criticism of the regimes and an assertion that “Islam is the solution” are gone, and this will not be enough to come to and then remain in power.

Thus the Islamists in the region face their first serious challenge before the people. Will they be able to deliver what they promise?

This is the question. In opposition they were radical, uncompromising and comfortable. When they are in power on their own or share it with others on the political terrain, things will be fundamentally different. Responsibility in government requires meeting demands and delivering services. What also changes under governmental responsibility is the radicalism of the Islamists, who will not be able to hold on to their radical political stance.

This will be so because people who bring the Islamists to power will not be satisfied by a mere radical rhetoric; they will also ask for concrete achievements in delivering services.

So, as the Islamists get closer to taking over governments through democratic means, like in Tunisia and Egypt, they moderate their discourse, embrace non-Muslim social groups and appeal to the West.

In this, certainly the experiences of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) will be very instructive for Islamist movements in the region. They should study and understand the AK Party's transformation into a post-Islamist political entity, enabling it to win three consecutive elections in Turkey. The success of the Arab Spring will be measured by the extent to which people's power is institutionalized in the form of democracy. This requires integration of the Islamist movements in the democratic process, which in turn requires that the Islamists transform their political language and strategies to adopt the “rules of the game.”

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